“I’m not a fashionista,” admits Janil Puthucheary. But fashion plays a part in Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative – which he co-leads.

The Minister-of-State for Communications and Information meets GovInsider in a white shirt and dark jeans. A pen pokes out of his top pocket, matching his black glasses. Putucheary’s outfit demonstrates commitment to a smartly-dressed nation.

But a group of fashion students in “quirky outfits” just showed how the country’s tech drive is more than “the trope of men in T shirts with beards”, he says. Last month, the Lasalle College of Arts partnered with the government to help final year students learn tech skills – 3D printing new designs, starting eCommerce microsites, and managing a show in a local department store.

Every industry in Singapore must adapt to a rapidly changing world, he adds. GI caught up with the newest member of the Smart Nation team to find out more.

Surfing the wave

The country’s economy is changing, with tech disrupting everything from taxis to tax collection. In response, the government is “fundamentally blurring the border between the education institutions and industry,” Puthucheary – who is also Minister of State for Education – says. This may be happening around the world but “we have to do more of it, do it better,” he adds.

Universities and schools must adapt to a more flexible world: training should be available throughout people’s lives, he believes, and young people should prepare for jobs while they study. There aren’t distinctive phases in careers anymore, he notes.

The past year has seen a slew of new initiatives, with Puthucheary ticking off youth coding classes, robots in preschools, and tech courses for the over 50s. But how can government protect older workers in low-skilled jobs – like those taxi drivers threatened by driverless cars and disruptive apps?

“This is a playbook that we’ve had for 50 years at least,” he responds. “We’ve gone through industry transformation after industry transformation – and remade our economy again and again.” The country has transitioned from low cost factories to high tech, and once again is shifting.

The key is for the country to teach coding, data analytics, and cyber security skills, he adds. “The fundamental base,” Puthucheary believes, is “investing in and supporting heavily the education of all levels and ages.”

His role in this

As Minister-of-State for Smart Nation, Puthucheary works in the Smart Nation Programme Office – based in the PM’s office – coordinating across government. “I’m still fairly new in this,” he notes, and was promoted in January. His team exists to find areas where they can fund research, bring people together, and cut through difficult areas of regulation and process.

Their priorities have “developed over time”, he notes, with Smart Nation proving to be quite a broad concept. But in this interview he highlights three priority areas.

First is FinTech and eCommerce. Government wants to help local companies sell their wares on new platforms, and receive payments in new ways. “We still think that’s something worthwhile for us to grapple with directly, and not just leave to the market processes,” he says. “There’s a lot more that can be done – a lot more that needs to be done.”

This area has implications for a great number of industries, Puthucheary continues, including security, data protection and intellectual property. Numerous agencies must work together to regulate the industry and simultaneously champion it.

Smart housing

The second priority is urban planning and logistics. “It’s really very hard work, with a lot of moving parts and extraordinary complexity. But this is something that directly impacts on people’s lives.” Data and tech can improve housing, transport, pollution management and security, he says. And while the country has traditionally fared well at this, the Smart Nation Programme Office is pushing ahead to think of the next steps.


“It’s really very hard work, with a lot of moving parts”

A big effort is underway in housing, especially to support an ageing population. But do people want their houses kitted out with sensors? They are moving at “different speeds” he notes, but the government isn’t going to “build a home full of sensors and say that this is the only home that you can have”. Instead, they want to demonstrate the benefits of tech, such as savings from energy management systems.

The Housing Development Board is making homes ready for smart objects, and letting residents sign up for voluntary trials on elderly monitoring systems and smart meters. Residents can choose after trials whether they continue subscribing to the package.

Meanwhile, bigger investment is happening in waste and power management. Government is setting up systems and building the underlying infrastructure, he says. Residents will be expected to plug into some of this.

What happens if this technology becomes outdated though? Much of the sensor technology could, he admits. So will government step in if a manufacturer sunsets the devices installed in public housing – as Google did recently with its Nest product? “The short answer is no”, he says. Government would have “a certain level of liability” he admits, but companies close and that’s the nature of technology.

And what of standards? How will government ensure these devices all talk to one another? “Standards are always going to be an issue, interoperability is always going to be an issue,” he notes. The private sector will want “a proprietary approach where they can capture value and have a competitive edge,” but government is ready to intervene and sometimes set national standards when necessary.

Healthcare and privacy

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The third priority is health care, particularly to support an ageing population. The Smart Nation Programme Office is championing data sharing to improve patient treatments. “We want to shift the complex, longstanding arrangements” to patient data, he says, letting researchers use anonymised information to monitor bigger trends.

Practically speaking, this needs government to “reengineer” the healthcare system – overcoming regulatory and technical hurdles.

Equally, they need the database to grow to include all citizens to prevent any selection bias. The aim is to “anonymise nicely, protect people’s identity, so that you have very secure transactions across institutions… and a large pool of population-wide data.”

What about privacy? In both housing and healthcare, is this an issue? “Singaporeans largely have the approach that if it’s within government they do trust it,” he says. Citizens are keen for the country to “do more in this space. They don’t want us to be standing still and losing out on this opportunities. They want to be part of this wave,”.

Trust won’t be “taken for granted”, however, and they will be closely monitoring the private sector on this issue.

Meanwhile, the Cyber Security Agency is focused on protecting citizen data from hacking attacks, ensuring contined trust, he says.

Why politics?

On the day of this interview, Puthucheary went to a Cabinet meeting and ended up helping to save the Finance Minister’s life. Heng Swee Keat had a stroke, and the Prime Minister praised Dr Puthucheary for working with colleagues to act quickly. In particular, Puthucheary was noted for resuscitating the patient, and hyperventilating him to reduce pressure on his brain.

“I was both a senior clinician as well as having a role in teaching – I was a professor in the medical school,” Puthucheary had explained to GI that morning.

How did his medical role compare to politics? “The skill sets of managing people, analysing complex problems, working out the fundamental gaps in knowledge and the need to change processes are the commonalities,” he says. That said, “I did not do many business lunches before.”

But is he glad he made the switch? “I’m enjoying it, but I do miss my work as well. That was something I spent many years training for and I did enjoy it. I worked with a great team and I miss my colleagues and my buddies. But there’s room for lots of things to happen in one’s life.”

We can expect to see this gregarious Minister-of-State more often over the course of this year. From fashion shows to Forbes-under-30 summits, Puthucheary is popping up frequently to champion the Smart Nation initiative.

There are plenty of issues to cover, and the remit is getting broader than ever.